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Wine Dinners, Tastings Helping to Boost Sales, Bottom Line for Restaurant Industry

When Tobin James greeted members of his wine club , the James Gang , attending a “progressive dinner” that paired varietals from his Paso Robles winery with a gourmet buffet at Hotel Solamar’s JSix rooftop bar, he joked about how he has been allowed back into two of that city’s bars.

“Yeah, and that’s only because they’re under new ownership,” he told a couple entering an area of the patio cordoned off with velvet ropes.

Tobin James Cellars, which hosted three wine pairing dinners at different establishments here in mid-April, and is scheduled to return to the Solamar next year, is a “cult favorite,” said Gary Stow, the bar manager at JSix.

The folksy winemaker who thumbs his nose at Napa is a favorite of wine connoisseurs who know about him, Stow said.

“He makes party wines that are affordable. He wants the average, everyday person to be able to drink his wine,” he said.

While no upscale restaurant’s wine list would be complete without some pricey brands like Opus or Dom Perignon that could clench a business deal or woo the affections of an intended, there’s “reverse snob appeal” in being able to identify labels that are spinoffs created by vintners who don’t want to flood the market with their more expensive lines, Stow added.

And that’s where education pays off.


Wine 101

“Wines are a savvy thing to know, especially in the business realm,” Stow said, explaining that pairing dinners and tasting events provide a popular crash course on the topic. There’s also economy of scale in sampling varietals before going out and buying a bottle at a store, and finding out you don’t like it, he pointed out.

Interest in wine is exploding, said Bernard Guillas, executive chef of the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. The globalization of the market has resulted in “new world” wines, such as those coming from within the United States, that are available for consumption sooner and in greater abundance than “old world” wines, he said. France and Italy are old world territories where winemakers traditionally let their brands sit for up to a decade before selling them. The more the merrier?

According to a study published in December by the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, Americans are buying more wine than in years past, and California is doing its part to respond to the demand. In 2002, the state had 477,000 acres devoted to vineyards, and the retail value of the wine produced was estimated at $16.5 billion, up $1.3 billion from 2002.

But variety is the spice of life for a wine connoisseur, according to Ed Moore, who owns the 3rd Corner, a restaurant and wine shop in Ocean Beach, as well as Nick’s at the Beach restaurant in Pacific Beach. Liberal distribution laws that have resulted in foreign brands being as readily available here as U.S. wines have pushed people’s palates beyond chardonnays and cabernets, he explained.

Some of the new varietals moving off his shelves include tempranillo, a red from Spain, malbec, a South American red and albarino, a white from Spain.

“They’re emerging, and I think one reason is because of their price points,” Moore said. “They’re usually very affordable. We retail them from $7 to $8 and up.”

The currency exchange, which gives foreign travelers to the United States more bang for their dining and drinking buck, also helps to push wine sales, Guillas said.

“I can tell you our sales of wines are really good, and we’re only open for dinner,” he said, adding that food amounts to 65 percent of the restaurant’s total sales, while 35 percent, more than in the past, is attributable to wine.

The recommendation that wine is a heart-healthy beverage also boosted sales. “We’re a very reactive society, so when the U.S. Surgeon General said a glass or two of red wine is good for you, sales peaked,” Guillas said.

Bertrand Hug, who owns the posh restaurants, Bertrand at Mr. A’s in Bankers Hill and Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe credits the movie “Sideways” , basically a comedic tour of Solvang’s wine country , with “catapulting” demand for pinot noir.

“We used to stock three, and now we have 60,” Hug said. “It used to be that you’d go into a bar and they’d have four or five wines by the glass, mostly Chablis and hearty burgundy. Now you can go to almost any restaurant or bar and get a variety of wines by the glass.”

Sami Ladeki, who owns the Sammy’s California Woodfired Pizza chain, as well as Roppongi Restaurant, likened wine-savvy to the astrology craze of yesteryear.

“It used to be astrology that everyone was into, now it’s wine and that includes young adults,” Ladeki said.

Moore agrees. “I’m amazed at how wine sales have grown,” he said. “The younger generation is into wine and I think part of it is because the glitter and glitz is off. It’s more approachable. Also, a lot of young people in San Diego are in the hospitality industry and know and appreciate wine.

“They’re waiters and bartenders that come here when they get off work. People are drinking wine more than beer and vodka because wine is more passive than beer or hard liquor. You breathe in the aroma and sip it. It’s a sensory experience.”

According to Steve Schackne, food and beverage director for the Hotel del Coronado, the fact that young adults are among the ranks of wine lovers makes it a “multigenerational experience.”

“I’ll notice people of different ages talking about wines at the dinner table,” he said. “It’s something they have in common.”

Christian Gurtner, assistant director of food and beverage for the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad, said that epicurean magazines such as Wine Spectator provide a primer for wine drinkers.

Mark Dibella, director of sales and marketing for the newly renovated U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown, said it is spending $20,000 to $25,000 a month to build up its wine inventory so that it may qualify to join the ranks of roughly 20 local dining establishments, including the Four Seasons Aviara, Marine Room, and Hotel del Coronado listed as Grand Award winners in Wine Spectator.

“Our primary goal is to eventually be among those rated in Wine Spectator , every wine connoisseur’s bible,” Dibella said.


Making The Dining Experience Finer

Hug said that upscale restaurants, which saw a decline in business immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, have enjoyed a resurgence, which in turn fuels wine sales.

“Things have really rebounded,” he said. “We are doing an incredible business.”

As diners become more knowledgeable about wines, more is expected from those that serve them. “In the past, a waiter or waitress would simply drop a wine list on the table and come back for the order. Now they have to be well versed on the wines, so we provide seminars for the staff,” Hug said.

Schackne said that in recent years the sommelier has become as important a player in the dining realm as the chef.

“The sommelier is the one who complements the chef’s food,” he said.

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